The Imprint of God’s Nature: Brief Word Study of the term χαρακτήρ

“He [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint (χαρακτήρ) of his nature…” – Hebrews 1:3a (ESV)

In the first chapters of the book of Hebrews we have perhaps one of the clearest statements about who Jesus is in all of Scripture. Although Hebrews is included among the New Testament letters, it read more like a sermon than a letter. In fact, Hebrews even lacks any greeting or thanksgiving that is a characteristic of Paul’s letters. Instead this sermon in letter form begins with a clear statement of the person of Jesus Christ (verses 1-4). Interestingly, these first four verses in the original Greek are one single complex sentence. Also worth note, this complex sentence contains only one independent clause, “he [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2, ESV). The syntax of this sentence guides the reader to the main point; while God has spoken in the past through various means, now God speaks through his Son, this is the central idea of authors claim.[1] While much more can be said about these four verses, the subject of this brief study is the Greek word χαρακτήρ (charaktēr). This word is found in verse 3, which is a verse wherein the author describes the identity and role of Jesus Christ, the Son.

Meaning

While χαρακτήρ (charaktēr) is a Greek word, it obviously should be familiar to us, since it is where the English word character comes from. Although there are similarities in meaning, it is important to dig deeper into the context and meaning of this word in Hebrews 1. BDAG list four definitions for χαρακτήρ: (1) A mark or impression placed on an object, (2) a reproduction/representation, (3) a characteristic trait, distinctive mark, and (4) outward aspect, outward appearance, form.[2] The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament also defines the word as: impress, image, characteristic feature. [3]

Word Origin

Originally the word χαρακτήρ may have meant “one who engraves,” however even in its earliest uses the word referred more to the result of an engraving, rather than the process of engraving or the person who does the engraving.[4] Later on in the Greek world this word was used to mean such things as “image,” “coinage,” “money,” “stamp,” “copy,” among other things. The word is used once in the LXX for “scar” in Lev. 13:28. Outside the canon in 2 Maccabees 4:10 the word is used to refer to “characteristic features” of the Hellenistic culture, and in 4 Maccabees 15:4 is used to describe the “likeness” impressed on children by their parents.[5]

Hebrews 1:3

BDAG’s second definition, “reproduction/representation,” fits into the context of Hebrews 1:3, Jesus is “χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ,” exact representation of (God’s) real being.[6] It is clear from the context of Hebrews chapter 1 that the author’s purpose was to stress the glory of the Son and to show the uniqueness of the Son’s revelation. It is easy then to see that the use of χαρακτήρ for the Son tells us that the Son’s revelation is so great and glorious because he is the perfect representation of God.

Theological Significance

Needless to say the theological significance of this word is big. I will not attempt to list and exposit all the implications, however a few are:

  1. The divinity of Jesus:
    1. If Jesus is the exact representation of God, this verse and word clearly point to the divinity of Jesus Christ.
    2. Being the reproduction of God, Jesus possesses all of the same attributes as the Father.
    3. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9 ESV)
  2. While Jesus is divine, he is also separate from the Father:
    1. Since the word χαρακτὴρ refers to a reproduction of the original, it then follows that even though the Son is completely the same in his being as God the Father, they are also separate persons. While the imprint of a stamp is the exact same as the stamp itself, they both exist separately. Therefore, the Son is not the Father and has a separate existence, yet at the same time shares in the same divine nature.[7]
  3. We can know God through Jesus:
    1. As stated by Augustus Strong, “The stamp from the seal is not precisely the reproduction of the seal. The letters on the seal run backwards and can be easily read only when the impression is before us. So Christ is the only interpretation and revelation of the hidden Godhead. As only in love do we come to know the depths of our own being, so it is only in the Son that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).”[8]
    2. Jesus is the perfect representation of God because he was the God-man. The image of God took on human flesh and made God known to us.

Life Application

There is no other way to know God except through Jesus Christ. While the Old Testament is full of types and shadows of Christ, they could not be fully seen or understood until Jesus came. Even the best of Jewish learners misunderstood the Scriptures and did not believe Jesus’ testimony while He was on earth, and today the Jews are still awaiting the messiah. Countless other religions, prophets, teachers, leaders, philosophers, etc., are followed today, yet they cannot reveal the truth about God as Jesus can. How can you expect to know God if you turn your back on Jesus Christ who is the perfect revelation of God? God is so awesome and outside our understanding that God had to reveal Himself to us. God must reveal God. Jesus as the χαρακτὴρ of God is that revelation for us, even today. Who are you looking to today for your revelation of God? Is it Jesus, the perfect representation, or to something or somebody else?

 

[1] Johnson, L. T. (2012). Hebrews: A Commentary. (C. C. Black, M. E. Boring, & J. T. Carroll, Eds.) (1st ed., p. 63). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] “χαρακτήρ,” BDAG, 1077-1078.

[3] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (pp. 1308–1309). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[4] Silva, M. (Ed.). (2014). In New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (Second Edition., Vol. 4, pp. 651–653). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (pp. 1308–1309). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[6] “χαρακτήρ,” BDAG, 1077-1078.

[7] Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Baker New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1984), 30.

[8] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Accordance electronic ed. 3 vols.; Philadelphia: Griffith & Rowland Press, 1907), 336.

 

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